NORTH CAROLINA — In August 2011, the nonprofit site NC Policy Watch published a lengthy, damning investigative report about Stephen LaRoque, a state legislator from Kinston, in the rural eastern part of this state. The account, by a newspaper refugee named Sarah Ovaska, used interviews and detailed documentation to examine whether LaRoque—who runs a for-profit company that manages two nonprofit entities handling millions in federal loans to small businesses—had improperly enriched himself and those close to him.
When LaRoque angrily responded to the story a couple weeks later, Ovaska found her work gaining a higher profile, mentioned by outlets like the Raleigh News & Observer and WRAL.com, as well as smaller local publications. She also found herself defending the integrity of that work on camera after LaRoque, a Republican, called it “a political hit piece” put out by a “liberal propaganda tabloid.” (NC Policy Watch is run by the left-leaning North Carolina Justice Center, which works to reduce poverty in the state.)
On Tuesday, news broke that supports the idea that there was something fishy about LaRoque’s operation: he was indicted by a federal grand jury on eight counts stemming from allegations that he misappropriated hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funding. Among the more colorful charges: LaRoque used thousands in government cash to buy Faberge eggs for his wife, and thousands more to buy an ice-skating rink, complete with Zamboni, for his wife and a stepdaughter.
The indictment, of course, is not a conviction. And it’s not absolutely clear whether Ovaska’s work, which was prompted in part by a critical report about the lending programs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General, spurred the federal criminal investigation. What is clear: The indictment shows the grand jury issued a subpoena to Laroque in September 2011, a month after the NC Policy Watch report was published.
Whatever the connection, Ovaska’s work demonstrates the emerging role that nonprofit advocacy organizations with professional reporters play in our democracy, watching where government money gets spent and digging deep when traditional news organizations sometimes can’t. (I wrote about North Carolina’s crop of such groups, including NC Policy Watch, for CJR in April.)
And it’s heartening to see those traditional news organizations acknowledge that role by following the story and crediting NC Policy Watch for its work. Craig Jarvis of the News & Observer gave a nod to Ovaska’s coverage in his story about the indictment. Travis Fain of the News & Record in Greensboro also mentioned Ovaska’s work in his blog post about the case. And LaRoque’s hometown paper, the Kinston Free Press, wrote Wednesday that the prosecutor’s report “affirmed many of the allegations raised by the NC Policy Watch piece, such as paying himself a six-figure salary, and making loans to fellow sitting legislators who had served on his boards.”
Meanwhile, as NC Policy Watch was drawing praise, its parent organization was coming under attack. A day after news of the indictment broke, the state’s Republican Party filed a complaint with the IRS against the North Carolina Justice Center and four other progressive nonprofits, accusing the groups of engaging in electioneering activity. (IRS rules prohibit nonprofit organizations classified as 501(c)3s from campaigning for or against particular candidates, though the rules don’t clearly define “candidates,” even in the era of the permanent campaign; such complaints are not uncommon.)
As for Ovaska, she wrote via email Wednesday that, like any reporter, she has learned to brush off personal attacks that come in the aftermath of controversial stories, and she’ll continue to investigate issues and institutions that affect “the poorest and most vulnerable in our state.”
“What’s been most satisfying to me are the people contacting me and NC Policy Watch thanking us for making investigative reporting part of our mission,” she added. “This type of reporting isn’t always easy for organizations to commit to, or see the benefits of, and it’s been rewarding hearing the appreciation from citizens around the state that understand the importance of maintaining watchdog reporting as traditional media shrinks.”
Her persistent, document-based work deserves accolades, and NC Policy Watch deserves credit for investing in investigative reporting. And the site is far from done—it’s hiring.